About the artwork
William Hesketh Lever purchased this painting, 'The New Frock', by William Powell Frith from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1889 for £157.10s. Lever, by then in his late thirties, was the leader of a successful and ever-growing soap company - Lever Brothers - which was making a fortune from selling one particular brand – 'Sunlight Soap'. When Lever bought this picture, his company had just relocated its factory from Warrington to the Wirral, to a site that came to be named after the product made there - Port Sunlight. It was therefore a key period in the history of the company and certainly a time to ensure a high profile for its relatively new product.
Lever understood the importance of advertising - something that at this date was more common in America than Britain. A growing number of commodities filled the Victorian marketplace. To ensure the success of any product, but most importantly new products, the Victorian businessman had to invest considerable sums of money in promotion. The Victorian era saw a growth in consumer goods fuelled by mass production and new manufacturing processes. Manufacturers saw advertising as essential if they were to have buyers for their products. One way of promoting products, just as today, was to use familiar, thought-provoking and appealing images. In the late Victorian period, contemporary British paintings were seen to offer the manufacturers a fantastic pool of these types of images. Thomas J Barratt, who from 1877 had control of the family firm A & F Pears, was the first to use this approach but he was quickly followed by Lever. For a relatively short period between 1887 and 1895 the use of paintings as inspiration for advertisements was commonplace.
When Lever saw Frith's painting hanging on the walls of the Royal Academy he immediately spotted its potential as an advertising image. The pretty little girl wearing her best dress and holding her bright, white apron hit a number of 'must haves' for the promoter of soap. The image was definitely one that would appeal to the housewife and mother. The sense of pride of the little girl coupled with cleanliness was obvious. In choosing images for advertising, Lever was also undoubtedly conscious of the Victorian image of the home as a place of security and sanctuary maintained by the wife and mother. The skills of home-making were vital accomplishments of a woman. Lever purchased the painting and immediately had the image reproduced as a Sunlight Soap advertisement and added the words 'So Clean'.
Find out how Frith reacted to the commercialisation of his work in our further reading.
Unfortunately, what seemed an obvious and harmless use of the image in Lever's opinion was for the artist a distortion of the picture's high moral tone and serious intent. The artist, William Powell Frith, had become famous for his scenes of modern life such as 'Life at the Seaside - Ramsgate Sands', 1854 (The Royal Collection), 'Derby Day', 1858 (Tate Britain) and 'The Railway Station', 1862 (Royal Holloway College). He regarded himself as a serious artist whose works he felt were an important commentary on contemporary life. When Frith exhibited this work at the Royal Academy he showed it with the biblical subtitle 'Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas' (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity – Ecclesiates Chapter 12 verse 8), thus making a comment about the transience and futility of worldly things very much in the manner of 17th-century 'vanitas' pictures. The fact that the painting should then be used to promote a wordly commodity was indeed high irony.
Frith was furious and exasperated. He wrote to 'The Pall Mall Gazette' on 9 July 1889 to protest at the way Lever had used the image. He admitted though that he had no legal redress since he had sold the picture and its copyright to Lever. (Artists at this time had little control over the way their pictures were used since copyright usually belonged to the owner unless the artist had made a special effort to register the copyright – today copyright belongs to the artist in the first instance.) Lever genuinely believed that any artist would be glad to have his work reproduced and widely circulated. Advertising, he thought, was playing a part in promoting the cause of high art. Indeed, this was the essence of Lever's argument in responding to Frith's complaints. 'The Pall Mall Gazette', fascinated by this public argument, sent a reporter to interview Lever. The reporter started his interview by stating that Lever had never made it known to Frith that he intended to use the picture for advertising. Lever replied, 'Certainly not, but I wrote in my own name. I looked upon the transaction as any other businessman might in making a bargain. If I had mentioned the word "advertising" the price would have gone up in a moment.'
At the time Lever bought this picture his art collecting was still inextricably linked to business, but only eight years later he went on to purchase his first major historic British painting, an eighteenth-century portrait, 'The Duchess of Rutland by Hoppner'. He now had the confidence and means to move beyond the realms of contemporary Victorian art to explore the history and breadth of British artistic achievement. Lever was no longer a businessman using art for profit but a businessman using his profits for art.